Sahel Shake’s up mobile design


TECH CORE Sahel Shake redesigns mobile for women in developing economies. It is the grand prize winning design concept in this year's GSMA's mWomen Design Challenge. The team redesigned the smartphone operating system from scratch in a way that would allow ease of use for women in low and middle income markets. Here, Smart Chimps talks to Sahel Shake's US-based design team, Jeremy Canfield, Sarah Fathallah, and Angel Kittiyachavalit, on how they came up with this innovative, ground breaking concept, and why.

SC: The concept of Sahel Shake gives women control over their phone resources, providing airtime and battery management widgets along with cost conscious phone sharing and emergency SMS features. Additionally, the operating system allows for low literacy users, so offers instead an extremely visual contact management system, while integrating voice and icons into SMS entry and delivery. How did your team come together, and how did you begin to work on this challenge?

Jeremy: We are mutual friends. We are all in the 'design for social good' space, though in slightly different contexts. Sarah and I worked together at Reboot, and Angel and I were both fellows at Code for America.

SC: What was your early design concept for this new OS, including initial problems, issues and ideas?

Jeremy: Our early concepts were derived from our experiences designing in low literacy concepts and research on related work. For instance, we recognised that while the design was for women, phones are often shared with spouses and must therefore not appear as a phone only for women.

SC: Why did you chose the name 'Sahel'? Is it to do with your experiences in the African Sahel region, where you wanted to release it first, or just the word?

Sarah: We chose the word 'Sahel' because it is a transliteration of both the Arabic words referring to the African Sahel region, representative of the areas in the world where resource-poor women have the most difficulty accessing technology, as well as meaning 'easy', which is what we aimed to make their smartphone experience feel like.

SC: During your design process for Sahel Shake, what problems and challenges did you run into, and how did you have to adapt or change the design process and end product in relation to these issues?

Jeremy: From a project perspective, the short time frame forced us to rely on our experience in building the scenarios and features; we did not have time for user research and testing. We are anxious to test this design and resulting prototypes with users, in context.

Angel: For me, I had never designed for illiteracy before and trying to think about the best way to present information was a tough, but interesting challenge. I deferred to the knowledge my teammates had about the space and the research that had been done.

SC: How did you gather your info on the low to mid income women your design is aimed at, and what were the most interesting things you discovered were needed or lacking there?

Sarah: We primarily relied on our experiences with women in low and middle income countries. I grew up in Morocco where many women, especially in my mother and grandmother's generations, are illiterate, but have many ways to function independently regardless of their formal level of education. In addition, we all have spent time working and living in resource-poor environments, which helped inform our design.

SC: Why do you believe the use of mobile tech by women in developing markets is important, and why is that important to you?

Sarah: We regularly work with mobile technology in emerging markets, but never had the chance to challenge the difficulties that came with using a technology with illiterate users. We always had to work with existing user interfaces and find ways to 'make it work'. With this challenge, it was important to us to be able to address the root of the problem and solve it from there. Ultimately, we are hoping that more appropriate and user friendly solutions like this will see the light in these markets, as they can pave the way for much easier implementations of development programmes.

SC: Your visual contact management system, integration of voice and icons into SMS entry and delivery, plus other innovations in your design are interesting; please explain how this stuff works in solving the problems women need to overcome in these markets.

Sarah: Limited literacy represents a major barrier to the smartphone value proposition for women in resource-poor contexts; smartphones rely greatly on text input and display. Drawing from research on interface design for low literacy contexts, Sahel Shake aims to reduce text dependency by offering a highly visual contact management system, and integrating voice and icons into SMS entry and delivery.

SC: When will Sahel Shake arrive in the market?

Jeremy: Sahel Shake has not yet made it to the market; we are working with developers and hope to have a prototype available soon. In the interim, the design did receive good initial reactions, as you can see in <a href=''>this video taken in Indonesia</a>.

SC: What's next for your team, or as individuals, design wise? More for women or developing markets?

Angel: I am currently working at Code for America as their Designer in Residence.

Jeremy: I am currently working for Reboot as a Service Designer.

Sarah: I am currently working on financial inclusion and consumer protection issues with the World Bank.

SC: One for the women! There aren't so many female developers in this space; what edge or perspective do you think women bring to the app dev game?

Angel: Women are half of the population and essentially the app market. It is logical to think that women are more likely to understand what other women want, so having that perspective at the table is necessary, especially for products that are specifically intended for women.

SC: Thank you!


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